I planted a strawberry patch this fall and have heard that I should cover the plants with mulch for the winter. Is this true? If so, what should I use for mulch?
Yes, I would recommend mulching your strawberry bed for several reasons. The most important being that a good layer of mulch will prevent the plants from heaving out of the ground in winter as temperatures fluctuate, causing the soil to alternately freeze and thaw. Heaving is more likely to occur in a heavy soil than in a sandy one, but no matter what type of soil you have, there are additional benefits of mulching such as conserving moisture and reducing weeds the following spring.
Wait to mulch your beds until after the first hard freeze, when the soil is frozen to about 1/2 an inch below the surface. Do not apply mulch during warm weather because this may cause the plants to begin growing and when the temperatures turn cold again they will be damaged.
The process I follow is to first cover the plants with a loose arrangement of small branches. This will prevent the mulch from smothering the plants. Then scatter your mulch material on top. I prefer to use wheat straw because it is less likely to pack down, but pine needles or even shredded newspaper will work as well. If you use newspaper, discard the slick pullouts and magazines because their inks contain heavy metals. Avoid using tree leaves, bark mulch or saw dust because they mat when wet.
Once the mulch material is applied, add another layer of twigs and branches to keep it in place and then lightly hose down the area with water.
Remove the mulch in spring after the last frost date in your area. Rather than discard the mulch, simply transfer it to the area between your plants to help retain moisture, prevent weeds and to keep the berries off the ground.